As the title suggests, Translations is a play which is very much concerned with language. It is also about politics, power, love, identity, tradition and betrayal. If this sounds like a powerful, heavy mixture, it is; however writer Brian Friel’s wisdom, his humour and dancing, entrancing script make of it a bittersweet delight.
It is the summer of 1833 in rural Donegal. The weather is unusually hot, and the locals are having their lessons outside at the “hedge school”, being taught a smattering of maths, geography and literature in a bewildering mixture of Gaelic, Greek and Latin by the flamboyant and bibulous master, Hugh. The Catholic Emancipation Act has already been passed, but there is still a feeling of pleasurable rebellion about these schools, as well as a general reluctance to attend the newly established national Anglophone schools; possibly due to the fact that very few of the rural people speak any English.
Change is in the air, however; a contingent of English sappers have arrived in the “section”, tasked with re-naming the local towns and landmarks to suit the English tongue, and re-establishing boundaries to suit the English purse. The jovial Captain Lancey and idealistic orthographer Lieutenant Yolland are hampered in their task by the fact that they speak no Gaelic; luckily they have a local man to act as interpreter. Owen, son of the schoolmaster, left the village six years before and is now using his polished manners and linguistic talents to translate the Captain’s awkward, imperialistic speeches into more acceptable Gaelic phrases, much to the disapproval of his lame brother Manus who, speaking fluent English himself, can see through his little contrivances. A clever conceit of the play is to have everyone on the stage speaking English, even though one party is supposed to be speaking Gaelic, so that nobody understands each other. Many conversations are conducted in this way, and although it sounds confusing, in practice it works perfectly, and is very funny.
Owen, mistakenly known to the English as Roland, is also tasked with helping Yolland to map the local area and come up with suitable Anglicised names for the roads, rivers and hills he has known all of his life. His enthusiasm for this task soon surpasses that of the lieutenant, who is enraptured by the weather, the scenery and the lilting, musical language and begins to find his job rather distasteful. His revulsion increases when he falls head-over-heels for a local girl, Maire, and his head begins to fill with dreams of living a carefree, sun-dappled life in verdant Ireland with this local goddess. Maire, for her part, sees in the gauche, gentlemanly Yolland the embodiment of a better life, one far removed from her daily rural drudgery. English, for her, is the language of civilization and romance. There is a lovely scene in which they woo each other simply by reciting place names whilst gazing into each other’s eyes. So far, so idyllic. However, Maire has an unofficial “understanding” with Manus. Despite the joyful country dancing, trouble is coming; you can smell it in the air, like the “sweet smell” which to the locals means rotten potatoes, a bad harvest and economic disaster.
The set is beautifully simple; a ramshackle barn, some stools and a wonky lectern serve as the hedge school, and the setting for all of the drama. James Farncombe’s lighting contributes wonderfully to the atmosphere; everything is bathed in a hazy, honey coloured glow, adding to the dream-like, transient feel of that one hot summer.
The acting is uniformly excellent, especially that of James Northcote as Yolland, who manages to make what could have been an irritating, stereotypical character into a very real, endearing person. Niall Buggy as the outrageous Hugh is fabulous and intensely watchable; his mastery of a difficult script, his pauses and inflections, are tremendous.
Language, with its powers, its mysteries, its problems, is explored on every level throughout the play. The English use their usurpation of the local place names to increase their domination over the Irish; by removing their history and identity they feel they can neutralise an entire population. Captain Lancey very deliberately uses the new place names to issue threats against the locals. Maire, and Owen too at first, see the mastery of English as a tool to better themselves and a passport to a better life. It is interesting that while Owen has no objection to the English calling him Roland at the beginning of the play, as he gradually becomes immersed in the local culture once more and begins to see through the facile charm of the English sappers to the sinister steel beneath, it irks him more and more. Yolland is seduced by the poetry of the Gaelic into believing in a better, purer, simpler world, which has no more basis in fact than Maire’s idealised notions of Norwich. Sarah, a mute girl, manages to catastrophically influence events while hardly speaking a word. Jimmy Jack, a local ne’er-do-well is so immersed in the beauty of the old Greek and Roman myths that they have become more real to him than reality itself. Manus, though fluent in English, chooses to exert his power by refusing to speak it. Then there is Hugh, the schoolmaster. His orations, peppered with Latin and syntactical explanations, become ever more weighty, until he is subtly transformed from entertaining raconteur into a prophet.
James Grieve directs his talented cast with a light touch, while at the same time maintaining total control. Nothing is laboured, but nothing is wasted. His affection for the characters, the script and for Brian Friel himself make Translations feel like a labour of love, and as a result it is a thing of beauty. Not to be missed.
Review by Genni Trickett
Tue 22nd April to Saturday 3rd May 2014
Thursday 24th April 2014